Friday, August 29, 2008

The Robert Drew Kennedy Films: A Past that Mirrors Our Times
With the 2008 Democratic and Republican conventions upon us, and the Presidential race finally entering its last lap, US politics are a hot ticket. They’re burning up all the networks, and they’re the darling of the tabloids. Pity that in all that coverage, issues are buried beneath the glam factors of potential First Ladies and candidates’ favorite pop culture heroes. Given that, it’s not surprising that some circles liken the McCain-Obama election race to the Kennedy-Nixon contest of 1960. Indeed, there are parallels, magnified out of proportion though they may be. Then, like now, the times were more about drama than substance. TV was the New Media of the time, and just as the Internet sometimes stumbles as it finds its footing, television for the most part didn’t quite realize the power it held. As one might expect, seeds of revolution were quietly taking root, with politicians and documentarians shaping a new zeitgeist.

Robert Drew was instrumental in reshaping the voice and visage of the news, taking it from a “talking head” format to something more immersive and immediate. In the process, he invented the cinema verite style of film journalism. Thus, The Robert Drew Collection - JFK Revealed (Primary / Crisis / Faces of November) (1963) offers an intimate look of JFK, the likes of which had never been recorded, and also serves as an historical document in its own right. These films represent the origins of cinema verite, wherein the viewer becomes a passive participant in the film. There’s no narration, only the players in the film followed silently by hand-held cameras, leaving the viewer to draw his own conclusions about the events transcribed.

The first film in the collection, Primary, follows the campaigns of Minnesota senator Hubert Humphrey and upstart Massachusetts senator John Kennedy as they vie for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1960.The contrasts between the two are stark: Humphrey is an old-school politician attempting to appeal to Wisconsin voters’ agricultural roots at the expense of the “eastern elite”, portraying himself as a champion of the common man. Kennedy, on the other hand, can be perceived as a celebrity adored by urban voters and youth, a rock star before that term was used in politics. The real stars of the film, though, are the voters of Wisconsin, whose views are surprisingly diverse. And even though we know how it ends, Drew’s filmmaking prowess makes it a nail biting finish.

Crisis picks up three and a half years into Kennedy’s administration, centering around the civil rights showdown with Alabama’s governor George Wallace. By this time, Drew and his crews had pretty much perfected their “fly on the wall” technique, and had unprecedented access to the White House and to the Governor’s Mansion in Alabama, as well. Thus, we see both sides of the conflict, centering around Wallace’s refusal to admit two African- American students to the all- white University of Alabama. It all comes to a head on 11 June 1963, when Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, at the behest of Attorney General Robert Kennedy, confronts Wallace on the steps of the university. And though it all ends peacefully, the wranglings leading up to the Kennedy victory in the case are the stuff of drama.

The final film in the collection, “The Faces of November,” is a scant eleven minutes long, and is credited as a bonus feature in the set. Nonetheless, it may be the most moving piece in the collection. It could best be described as an account of JFK’s funeral, but that would be giving it short shrift. It’s a quiet tribute to the man, made all the more poignant by the fact that we feel we know the man as a result of the other films in the collection. The faces we see in the film represent all the faces of America in November 1963, and they show an America that mourns as one.

Those expecting a crystalline restoration of this collection may be disappointed. It’s what it is, analog warts and all. In no small measure, it evokes memories to those who lived through those times, and gives a grainy sense of history to those who did not. There are running commentaries on Primary and Crisis to put it all in historical perspective, as well as featurettes featuring Drew and his collaborators discussing their vision of a documentary style that owed as much to the photos of Life Magazine as filmmaking.

Mainly, though, the Robert Drew Kennedy Collection demonstrates, however unintentionally, the cycles of history. Watching them, particularly Primary, it’s nigh impossible to see how much the face of America has changed. It also illustrates how little our hopes and fears have changed. In that context, particularly in the Obama-McCain race, the collection offers invaluable perspectives on what actually makes a president credible.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Saturday Mornings Were Never Like This
Make no mistake about this: anybody born in America in the latter half of the twentieth century was predestined to be just a little bit warped. And why wouldn’t we be? We leaped straight from the womb to the waiting arms of TV, which our enlightened post-war parents found to be the perfect nursemaid. They were right, of course. Without infantile exposure to what was then late afternoon and Saturday morning TV, we may never have experienced the skills necessary to surviving in the 21st century.

Without Buffalo Bob and Howdy Doody, Captain Kangaroo and Grandfather Clock, and Shari Lewis and her menagerie of conniving puppets like Lamb Chop, we might have gone through our lives without knowing that those damn puppets have lives of their own. Had it not been for Bozo and, yes, even Ronald McDonald, we might have thought the Joker is a quaint anomaly. Don’t even get me started on Chuck E. Cheese—my niece, when she was only four, demonstrated how terrifying that mofo really is.

Since we have to confront our fears in order to overcome them, it’s not surprising that the TV generation resorted to making fun of their demons. Paul Reubens, in his Pee -Wee Herman persona, pioneered that particular catharsis way back in the late 70’s in clubs and early 80’s on HBO, before hitting the mainstream in 1986 with the CBS Saturday morning series Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. It was a work of genius, full of talking chairs and sunflowers, innuendo that only adults would get, and genies and cowboys of guestionable gender. As adults, we found the satire a biting memory of our own childhood TV experience. My 18 month old daughter just found it mesmerizing. It worked out swimmingly for us both, although we found it funny for different reasons.

Comedy Central’s TV Funhouse took that Saturday morning premise to a different reality, one decidedly not designed for toddlers to enjoy with jaded parents. Created by Robert Smigel (You Don't Mess With The Zohan) and Dino Stamatopolous (Moral Orel), the series ran only eight episodes between 2000-01 before being cancelled for being “too expensive” to produce. Really?—kinda makes you wonder what sort of budgets basic cable worked with at the dawn of the Millennium. After all, except for a few simple cartoon shorts, the series was pretty much basic production values. Once you start wondering about that, you start wondering if maybe TV Funhouse was just a little too out there for a PC- conscious corporate mindset.

Imagine Quentin Tarantino as the executive producer of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, with Robert Ramirez directing the individual episodes, and you’ll have a very rough idea of how deliciously twisted TV Funhouse was. The concept’s innocent enough—a children’s TV show hosted by Doug, with each episode having a theme—“Western Day,” “Mexicans Day,” “Safari Day,” “Chinese New Year’s Day”—all designed to educate children in historical and cultural matters in an informal, easy to understand manner. The problem is, is his puppet co-hosts, the Anipals—a name-dropping dog, a cuckolded rooster, a turtle whose favorite transportation is “the tubes” (which begins with being flushed down the toilet) and a cat with jazz aspirations and an adulterous wife—have better ways to spend their time. Rather than waste moments on Doug’s lame themed shows, they’d rather go whoring in Tijuana or partying in Atlantic City with Robert Goulet., or turn Doug’s spinal fluid into a meth-like version of Christmas Spirit.

It’s all very surreal, made all the more so by the clips and cartoons that litter the main story, and ultimately hold it all together. Cartoons like “Wonderman”, whose superhero ethic is based on getting his alter-ego laid, is even more cool in that it’s inspired by the Max Fleischer “Superman” cartoons of the forties. “The Baby, the Immigrant and the Guy on Mushrooms” has a deceptively innocent charm about it. And then there are the take-offs on the early fifties “educational” films, particularly “Mnemonics: Your Dear, Dear Friend.”

Yeah, you could make a politically correct case about the show’s crassness and its adult content, but you’d miss the point of the series. In its peculiar way, it rekindles our link with childhood, when our sense of wonder collided headlong with the realities we were going to have to face, one way or another. You could go on and on about how stupid it is, but you’d only show that you lost your sense of wonder somewhere along the way. TV Funhouse manages to straddle the dichotomous nature of wonderment and guttersnipe realities, and gleefully reawakens the chaotic demon-child we try, unsuccessfully, to repress.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

The Words and Music of Patti Smith Barely Scratches the Surface
Rock and roll knows no limits—that’s why it’s survived despite the changing whims of social mores. It’s a stentorian spirit, sometimes laying low while culture tests its will with namby-pamby versions of its soul. It’s clever in its strategies,though, allowing the forces of the lowest common denominator to think they’ve tamed it, homogenized it, bloated it beyond recognition. It worked with Elvis, didn’t it?

The thing that is Rock and Roll pays it no mind—its minions are legion, and they all want to be a part of the Mother Organism—for every one who falls victim to the mainstream, at least a thousand are gathered in garages to renew the primordial spirit from whence Rock drew its first breath, kicking and screaming to heaven and hell that it would not be denied. It may be compromised and commercialized by the business, and alternately vilified and sanctified by the critics, but its three chord structure is a fortress that’s ultimately impervious. It’s a universe unto itself, a self-contained society that reinvents itself as it goes along.

Patti Smith is more than a minion of Rock—she’s a high priestess whose dedication to the beast has, for more than thirty years, had a profound influence on its evolution. In the book The Words and Music of Patti Smith, author Joe Tarr attempts to dissect Smith’s career by examining every track she ever recorded in microcosmic detail. At 119 pages (149, if you count the supplemental bibliography, footnotes and index), Tarr has written the longest record review in the history of humankind. I don’t mean that as a compliment, either.

While Tarr may mean to offer a critical retrospective of Smith’s works, he relies heavily on reviews that were published at the time to validate his point. He looks at the reviews of the time the albums were released to paint a picture of Smith that’s politically correct, but offers little insight into the artist herself. He’s more concerned with pigeonholing Smith as a fan who became an icon than focusing on the boldness with which she pursued her career. In the process, he obsesses on “Rock ‘N’ Roll Nigger” for several pages, citing the N-word word itself as a basis to dismiss the song, and completely ignoring the real meaning of the lyrics, especially the “outside of society” part.

As a biography, The Words and Music of Patti Smith doesn’t offer any new insights into the artist’s life. It’s all been documented before, much of it quoted here. It quickly becomes apparent that Tarr is relying on old news to write a book, interjecting retrospective (and somewhat biased) personal viewpoints wherever the fancy strikes him. As criticism, it doesn’t fare much better. Granted, Tarr painstakingly looks at every song on each of Smith’s albums, too much so, in fact. He precedes every breakdown with the amateurish, and conceited, “this song is about…” intro. It’s been a hackneyed tool of amateur critics since Rock allowed journalism into its sphere, and it’s usually followed by a series of personal prejudices to illustrate the critic’s viewpoint. Rock music—indeed, all music, is impressionistic, and its meaning changes, for the listener and performer, with each new performance. Here’s an example:

To be fair, Tarr’s book offers an introduction of Patti Smith’s work, and her continuing influence, to an audience who may only have heard of her in the press, but are unfamiliar with her actual music. For those who have followed her career, The Words and Music of Patti Smith comes across as a lopsided account of her career from someone a generation removed from the New York scene that spawned punk.

More than any other woman, and more than most men, for that matter, Patti Smith has embodied the primal spirit of rock. Without her, there would be no Chrissie Hynde or Joan Jett. And without her, and the whole CBGB scene of the late seventies, there probably wouldn’t have been a Sex Pistols or Clash. She embraced the androgyny that her male counterparts had hinted at from the earliest days of Elvis, and forged a new path for every skinny wannabe rock star. She’s never shied away from politics or social issues, and she rocked them even when it was unfashionable.

That thing that is Rock and Roll would breathe much heavier without her presence. And that same entity can only shake its head in amusement when guys like Joe Tarr intellectualize her ad nauseum. The only way to appreciate Patti Smith is to listen to her albums. Sure. She slips every now and then, but she always regains her footing.

While The Words and Music of Patti Smith tries to offer a solid portrait of Patti Smith, it slips frequently, and never quite regains its footing.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

The Allure of Anglo-Saxon Attitudes
Nobody lives in the present—it can’t be done. By he time we perceive a moment, it’s already the past, leaving us to plot our next miniscule future. In fact, the present is the only abstract in our concept of time, no matter how we try to dismiss the future as unknown. If the present exists at all, it’s only as an asterisk to remind us of the moments we’ve experienced before we plunge headfirst into the next moment. As much as we like to think we walk down a path that leads to that resolution we knew we deserved, we’re always trying to catch up.

See, time isn’t a river that we raft through, and it’s not a quantum field. For humans, it’s more like a mist that shrouds us, breaking only in moments of lucidity or regret. What we were and what we are cohabit the same space, playfully sparring to determine who we are, and who we will ultimately be. The British mini-series Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, newly released on DVD by Acorn Media, and based on the 1956 novel by Angus Means, brilliantly explores time as a series of decisions and their consequences. In the process, it skewers the hypocrisy of several cherished social mores.

Gerald Middleton (Richard Johnson) is the central character of Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, an aging historian of stiff upper lip demeanor haunted by the errors of his past. In 1912, he was witness to the celebrated unearthing of a pagan fertility idol at an archeological dig, buried with an early Christian bishop. It wasn’t long after that he discovered that overly endowed figure may have been a fake, planted there by the son of the expedition’s leader. And somewhere around that time, he began an affair with Dolly (Tara Fitzgerald) the fiancĂ©e of the roguish son (portrayed by a young, pre-Bond Daniel Craig.)

Forty some-odd years later, time has changed everything. Middleton married, not to his true love, Dolly, but to a shrewish Danish woman, Inge (Elizabeth Spriggs) whose seemingly frivolous eccentricities mask her dominating nature. Despite her frigid sexuality, they managed to spawn three offspring, all of whom go through their lives blissfully unaware of the little disasters they perpetrate. Gerald and Inge divorced eventually, but remained entangled in each other’s lives.

Time changed everything. Time changed nothing. All that time, Middleton kept the secret of the phallic symbol to himself, and kept his love for Dolly close to his heart. Now he wants to somehow rectify his past, and change his life for the unknown better, once and for all. The problem is, his past and present keep colliding, altering his future at every turn.

Andrew Davies did a remarkable job of adapting the Means novel, deftly moving the characters from one time frame to the other, using Middleton’s anguished memories as a framing device to tie it all together. In the process, Anglo-Saxon Attitudes deflates pomposities that are inherent not only in British society, but globally as well. It’s satire in its most potent form, exposing our follies so quietly we only realize it in retrospect. It’s not the sort of satire to make you giggle, but it will make you smile in places. It’s no wonder that the miniseries garnered a BFTA “Best Serial Drama” award in 1992.

The DVD is presented in its original 1.33:1 format, and is a beauty to watch. The video reproduction is crisp, and the sound separation is flawless. There aren’t a lot of bonus features—filmographies of the principals and biographies of Means and Davies are about it, but they illustrate what a stellar production it was. Anglo-Saxon Attitudes has a running time of 229 minutes, and is presented on two discs. Oh, it also features a small appearance by a 16-year old Kate Winslet, in one of her earliest roles.

Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, despite its pastoral pace (or perhaps because of it), remains an engrossing piece of drama that illustrates how lives unfold haphazardly, and reach their climactic moments largely unnoticed.